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Tariq Ali on Lahore Bombing: Is the Pakistani Government Turning a Blind Eye to Taliban Violence?

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Pakistan has launched a paramilitary operation following the Easter Day bombing in the country’s second-largest city that killed 72 people, including 29 children. Another 340 were injured. A Taliban splinter group has claimed responsibility for the attack on a crowded amusement park in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the country’s richest and most populous province. The attack occurred as members of the minority Christian community gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday. The Lahore attack was Pakistan’s deadliest since the December 2014 massacre of 134 schoolchildren at a military-run academy in Peshawar that prompted a government crackdown on Islamist militancy. We speak to British-Pakistani commentator Tariq Ali.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Pakistan has launched a paramilitary operation following the Easter Day bombing in the country’s second-largest city that killed 72 people, including 29 children. Another 340 were injured. A Taliban splinter group has claimed responsibility for the attack on a crowded amusement park in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the country’s richest and most populous province. The attack occurred as members of the minority Christian community gathered to celebrate Easter Sunday. A spokesperson for the attackers said they targeted Christians, but most of those killed were actually Muslim. Eyewitness Ikram Arif gave a harrowing account of the attack’s aftermath.

IKRAM ARIF: [translated] I came here to Gulshan Park yesterday. I was standing there at the parking area while parking my motorcycle. My friend was with me. We suddenly heard the sound of an explosion from inside. I parked my bike and rushed inside. I picked up the injured to move them away from there. I saw bodies with blown-up heads, some with blown-up legs and some with intestines coming out of their abdomen. Many injured people—men, women and children—were lying there. I picked up a blown leg of an infant, who must have been about six months old. I still have bloodstains on my leg. I picked up many injured people last night and moved them to an ambulance. I was not feeling well after that, and I returned home very tired, as if my body was no longer responding. Now I have come to see what the situation is.

AMY GOODMAN: The bombing in Lahore was Pakistan’s deadliest since the December 2014 massacre of 134 schoolchildren at a military-run academy in Peshawar that prompted a government crackdown on Islamist militancy. Speaking Monday, the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, renewed his pledge to crack down on militancy in Pakistan.

PRIME MINISTER NAWAZ SHARIF: [translated] It has been made clear to all concerned departments that any patrons or facilitators of terrorists, wherever they may be or in whatever disguise they may be hiding, they will not be spared from the clutches of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the implications of the Lahore bombing, we go to London to speak with Tariq Ali, British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker, novelist and editor of the New Left Review. His most recent book is The Extreme Centre: A Warning. He is also author of several books on Pakistani politics and history.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tariq. Can you talk about what happened in Lahore?


Amy, basically, what has been going on in Pakistan now for two to three decades is that madrassas, religious schools, have been created in large parts of the country, used as transmission belts. Added to that, there are camps, which are supposedly educational camps for some of these groups, which exist in different parts of the country, not just on the Afghan border, and it’s not a secret that in parts of the Punjab, the country’s largest and most important province economically and politically, in the southern part of this province, there have been a number of camps set up by these groups which have not been dealt with or investigated seriously by successive governments. And the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, every time there is a terrorist outbreak, says exactly the same thing: This will never happen again, this will not be allowed. He’s beginning to sound like a broken gramophone record from old times. No one takes him seriously, which is why I think the Army and the Rangers are moving in to try and see what can be done. But even they face a very difficult task, because many, many years ago, during the first Afghan War against the Russians, backed by the United States, all these groups were created. A whole number of religious schools, or madrassas, were set up, where the curriculum was very militant, in terms of, you know, suggesting violence against unbelievers, etc. So what we are now witnessing is the result of all those dragon seeds that were sewn over three decades ago and which many politicians at the time in the frontier province near Afghanistan warned would make Pakistan uninhabitable unless something was done. Well, it wasn’t done, and we now have another outrage in Lahore.

The one thing, Amy, which I think it’s important to understand, is that purely on the theological front, it is utterly grotesque of any group claiming to be Muslim to suggest that there is Qur’anic or institutional hostility to Christianity within Islamic writings. Jesus is one of the most revered of prophets in the Muslim pantheon. The only woman mentioned and praised and regarded as honorable in the Qur’an is Maryam, Mary, Jesus’s mother. There are more references to her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament, to show that these religions are linked to each other; they grew out of each other; they believe in the same book, the Old Testament; and they are all monotheistic. So, theologically, there is absolutely nothing to justify this.

This is a political assault on the country’s culture, its life, to try and create a jihadi, Islamic State-type republic. And this group, this splinter group, has expressed its admiration for the Islamic State, or Daesh, and regard themselves as its followers in Pakistan. So we’re now seeing the internationalization of a conflict that began in Iraq and created this group, now attracting others because it carries out these terrorist attacks in the Middle East and, of course, in Paris and in Brussels. It’s part and parcel of the same problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this group, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, that claimed responsibility, a faction of the TTP, the Tehrik-i-Taliban—what is even the Tehrik-i-Taliban? You say it is connected to ISIS, to the so-called Islamic State?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I don’t know whether it is connected in a concrete way, but it’s certainly influenced by ISIS and regards this group with some admiration, because they’re doing things. They don’t talk about what they’re doing, but they talked about doing things. It’s a form of very strong Sunni fundamentalism, which is disregarded and alienates most Sunnis in the world, which regards a particular type of Islam, a variant of Wahhabism, which is the only one acceptable. The demands of these people, when they actually bother to make them, is a state governed exclusively by Sharia. But Sharia has many interpretations. There is no single interpretation of the Sharia or Islamic law. Some of it already exists in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tariq, the significance of this taking place in Punjab?

TARIQ ALI: Very much so. This is the area where the bulk of the recruits for the Pakistan Army, the Pakistan police force and the Rangers come from. This is the most populous province in the country. And if they’re boasting, as their leader did yesterday—”Yes, we’ve decided to take the war to the Punjab”—the question is raised: How come that the government, the provincial government, the central government, were not aware of this? We know, and it’s not a secret either in Pakistan or in Europe or anywhere else, that these groups are infiltrated by intelligence people who keep a watchful eye on them. They have people in there who report to them. What did they report? That there were attacks going to take place? We know now that some months ago the Lahore Literature Festival was not allowed to use a particular government venue because they said that they were fearful of terrorist attacks. So one assumes they were aware that this group was up to something. And it’s a complete breakdown of the intelligence networks if they couldn’t predict these attacks. I don’t believe it myself. I believe that the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, elements within it, didn’t want to take action against these groups, because they have indirect or possibly even direct links with them. They don’t want to upset the province, which is their power base. And now they’ve seen the result.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I also want to ask you about what’s happening in the capital of Islamabad. Thousands of Islamists are staging a sit-in outside the Parliament there to protest last month’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated reformist politician and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer five years ago. You grew up with the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer?

TARIQ ALI: Yes, I did. We were schoolfellows and very close friends, though we lost contact later on, except occasionally. But he was—on these questions, he was very open-minded. And the reason they targeted him was a poor woman, a Christian woman, was accused of blasphemy, on the basis of nil evidence, locked up in a prison. There was a big row about it in Pakistan. The press raised the issue. And Salman Taseer, as governor of the Punjab, decided to make a symbolic point, and he actually went into the prison and sat next to the woman and talked to her. This was regarded as blasphemy itself, and the religious group involved decided to punish him. He was shot dead by Mumtaz Qadri, who was one of his specially trained bodyguards, put into place in the police force to defend him. And all the other guards stood quietly and watched as this guy pumped bullets into Taseer. The judges were scared to convict him, so he was in limbo for some time, sentenced to death. No one would carry it out. The judge who finally said that the sentence had to be carried out has fled the country and is now in Dubai. So, this is his supporters, of the killer, the assassin, who are demonstrating against what was done to him on the 40th day after his funeral, which is a day for prayer and religious meditation, etc. And they organized this demonstration, demanding that Qadri be declared a martyr and a whole number of other totally ridiculous demands which no serious government could even think of accepting. And yet ministers, etc., have been talking and negotiating with them.

So, the country is in a total mess, Amy. I can’t stress this too much. And people don’t like talking about it, but unless and until the country’s social structure improves and people see an alternative, both on the level of education, health facilities, housing, there’s going to be a huge vacuum, which some of these Islamist groups fill. And I think it has to be pointed out that this is not only poor people who are behaving like this—they can sometimes be duped. This is a middle-class phenomenon. You have all over Pakistan, including in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, very articulate, young, middle-class women preachers preaching a message of hate to middle-class people. They have nothing else. Their life is empty, so they go on this turn. And there have been many cases of a woman taking her three children from a pro-ISIS family and departing to Syria. No one knows what’s happened to her, when she’s coming back or not. The government is aware of all this. If I am sitting in London, they know it much better than me. And unless something is done to change the country from the top, nothing is going to change. This will carry on, and in a few months or a few years we’ll see the politicians repeating the same old nonsense.

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